Baltic herring: a plea of not quilty

Sunday, April 22, 2007 at 23:48 | Posted in Nostalgy, Personal, Sweden | 4 Comments

I like Baltic herring. It is not as fat as its cousin North Sea herring. There are plenty of different ways to prepare a Baltic herring. You can fry it, you can broil it or you can smoke it. There are endless sorts of marinades to put the herring in, your own imagination is the only limit when it comes to marinaded Baltic herring.

Given that there are so many different ways to turn a herring that used to swim in the Baltic Sea into a delicious meal, I do honestly not understand why our beloved neighbors in west, the Swedes, choose to make it a surströmming. Surströmming literally translates as sour herring. That is exactly what it is. The method of turning a herring into a surströmming is solely based on allowing the fish to go bad through a natural process.

At the end of each summer the Swedes celebrate a surströmming season. The odor of a can of surströmming after it has been opened is something you will never forget. I smelled it once, in 1982 as I was living in Sweden.

I used to rent a room back then at Mr. and Mrs. Ottessen’s in Saltsjöbaden south of Stockholm. They were a cute elderly pair in their 70’ies, bless them. The Ottesens were Norwegian but they had been living in Sweden most of their lives. Their children and grandchildren were born and raised in Sweden. Apart from their strong Norwegian accent and the custom of celebrating 17th May as the national day of Norway, they were as good as Swedes in their every day life and habits.

The Ottessens’ villa was about 200 meters from the sea. The shore was a spawn place of Baltic herring. Each spring and autumn lots of people allover the metropolitan area came there to catch herring.

Baltic herring is a funny and sporty fish. It loves to watch football. During the early evening games of World Cup 1982 there was nobody on shore fishing herring. Ergo: herring was not hungry during the football games because it must have been watching them in an underwater TV.

For 25 years ago I was 25 years younger than I am today. I was accordingly never too tired to spend hours catching Baltic herring. The only free hours I was not out there were those for a short sleep and the World Cup games. As I established above, Baltic herring watches football as well.

Due to my long hours spent spinning the line with five hooks and a weight, I had much more herring than I could possibly eat myself. I deep froze as much as I could but I still had plenty of fish to give the old pair Ottessen which they accepted with pleasure. In late August they said they wanted to thank me and invited me to their annual surströmming party.

The Ottessen surströmming party was a celebrated event among their aging friends. That year a cousin from Norway also attended. The party had been prepared for weeks.

A few hours before the guests were due to arrive, Kaj went to the garden to open the cans of surströmming. He opened them one by one. He did it right under my window which happened to be open.

The odor was incredible, something beyond this World. I was almost certain I would choke. Even my late uncle Elmer would not have made such a smell in the toilet after his week long drinking periods. The stink was right in my room and would not go away.

Since my room was not a good place to be in for the moment, I took a long walk. Remains of the smell were still detectable a couple of hours later as I returned to change for the party. I had somehow managed to almost forget the traumatic experience.

I felt almost relaxed as the guests started to arrive and generous shots of whiskey were being served. Dispite their age, both Ottesens and their guests were actually quite interesting people to chat with. Most of them were young in their hearts and their views were far from yesterday.

The merry atmosphere was carried through the delicious appetizers and home made wine. But when the surströmming was brought in I just knew that there was no way I could eat it. I do honestly not remember how I managed to avoid putting the smelly and rotten fish in my mouth but I know that I did not eat it and nobody seemed to notice.

That day in late August 1982 is never going to fade from my memory because that was the day in my life when I smelled Swedish surströmming. Whenever I hear the word I get goose bumps. I would never consider eating the stuff. I would not send it to my worst enemy, let alone a good friend.

So the story that Peter wrote this morning is funny. I enjoyed reading it and I am proud of the dedication. But at least my part in the story is highly fictional. I did not send him that can of rotten fish. I plead innocent.


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  3. I’m wtih you on the subject of surstromming. Who invented it and why?
    I remember visiting my great aunt and cousin when they were living in Umea. They lived in one end of a huge apartment complex. Somebody at the other end was having this evil fish at a party. We could smell it!! That is bad fish.

  4. The inventor is not known but this method of conserving is said to date back to the 16th Century when Swedes experienced a shortage of salt due to the wars fought by king Gustav Vasa. I guess he is to be blamed, at least indirectly 🙂

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